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Carol Gilligan’s persistent “Voice”

Thirty years after the feminist classic “In a Different Voice” shook up psychology, do its claims hold up at all?

Carol GilliganNANCY PALMIERI/Globe Freelance

When Carol Gilligan sat down at her kitchen table outside Boston in the mid-1970s to write the book that would turn her into an intellectual superstar, she at first wrote only for herself, she says. She was an untenured assistant professor at Harvard, with a contented existence that included progressive activism, organic gardening, and raising three boys. But the feminist movement was thrumming, and she was increasingly bothered by the gender issues she observed in her field. What Gilligan wrote became the basis for a book, “In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development,” published by Harvard University Press 30 years ago in May.

Gilligan made a sweeping, forceful argument that psychology had systematically ignored women in trying to answer questions about how humans make ethical judgments, and claimed the existence and importance of a “different voice”—feminine, emotional, relationship-oriented—in moral reasoning. “In a Different Voice” became an immediate sensation, embraced by newly formed women’s studies departments and by women themselves. It went on to be translated into 16 languages, and has sold 700,000 copies around the world.


Almost from the start, however, critics began to ask uncomfortable questions about Gilligan’s methods and arguments. Did the evidence bear out her impassioned stance? Did her studies live up to the standards of her field? And what were they to make of a feminist argument based on generalizations about the sensitive, emotional character of women? These critics, many of whom started out as sympathetic toward Gilligan, pointed out that while her conclusions might feel true—and they certainly did, especially to a certain kind of educated woman—they couldn’t be backed up by research. Today, “In a Different Voice” has been the subject of so many rebuttals that it is no longer taken seriously as an academic work. The New York Times put it gently a decade ago: “[Gilligan’s] academic reputation has not followed the same skyward trajectory as her public prestige.”

Still, “In a Different Voice” retains an iconic status, and Gilligan has ridden its fame to tenure at Harvard and then a plum position at New York University. “It’s so deeply gratifying to me to write something that affects others people’s lives, and also that starts a conversation,” she says now. “That’s what I had hoped to do. I thought of the book as the opening of a conversation—certainly not the close of one.”


Today, three decades after it entered the public conversation, Gilligan’s book has undeniably forced reevaluations within psychology, philosophy, education, and gender studies. And its lasting influence raises an intriguing question: Can a book get at something true and transformative, even if just about all of its academic claims prove false?


Moral psychology is a field that straddles philosophy and psychology by examining how humans approach ethical dilemmas. While moral reasoning might seem like a generic human skill, philosophers from Augustine to Rousseau to Hegel assumed that men and women do it differently, an assumption that reigned well into the 20th century. Freud observed in 1927 that “for women the level of what is ethically normal is different from what it is in men.” By the 1970s, developmental psychology had largely dropped such sweeping conclusions about gender differences for a more egalitarian view, but this conviction, too, led researchers into problematic territory: They often studied only boys and men and then extrapolated out to humankind.


The woman who set out to change that had grown up in New York City and received her doctorate from Harvard in social psychology in 1964. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, she worked with two prominent psychologists there, Lawrence Kohlberg and Erik Erikson. Through her research, teaching, and conversations with students, she awoke to a problem that no one else had clearly identified: Psychologists weren’t studying women, and they didn’t understand women’s supposedly unique moral development.

“In a Different Voice” made several major arguments. The most important was that humans puzzle through moral dilemmas using two different value systems: what she called the “ethic of justice” and the under-valued “ethic of care.” She was careful to write that moral orientation is not precisely aligned with gender, but on the same page she claimed an “empirical” association between this newly discovered “different voice” and women. Men make decisions based on individual rights, Gilligan argued, while women are concerned with responsibilities to others. Because of imprinting in their early years—an essentially unprovable notion Gilligan drew from the feminist psychoanalyst and sociologist Nancy Chodorow—women view the world in terms of connectedness, while men view it in terms of separation. Gilligan sought to elevate the status of this connectedness.

“In a Different Voice” drew from three original studies by Gilligan and her colleagues, each involving a small set of in-depth interviews. One study involved 25 college students reflecting on moral conflict; a second began with 29 recently pregnant women contemplating abortion; and in a third, 144 people were asked to make judgments on hypothetical moral dilemmas. Amid discussion of this research, Gilligan wove in references to Chekhov, James Joyce, Joan Didion, “Our Town,” and “Wild Strawberries.”


One study employed “the Heinz dilemma,” a classic ethics question about whether a man would be justified in stealing medicine to save his wife’s life. An 11-year-old boy named Jake reasoned that the man should steal, because human life is worth more than property. Another subject, Amy, saw a wider network of possible causes and effects: What if the husband goes to jail, where he can’t help his sick wife in the future? Couldn’t he get a loan? Gilligan wrote admiringly that Amy saw “in the dilemma not a math problem with humans but a narrative of relationships that extends over time.”

Amy’s feminine style of logic, Gilligan argued, had been systematically denied and devalued by the academic psychology establishment. In particular, her book read as a direct rebuttal to Kohlberg (though he provided a blurb for the book, and the two continued to work together).

The argument rang true to thousands of readers. Colleges all over the country invited Gilligan to speak; she recalls some of these events as essentially intra-disciplinary therapy sessions in which psychologists would admit they either didn’t include women in their studies or couldn’t make sense of what the women said. Ms. magazine named Gilligan its first Woman of the Year in 1984, praising her for creating “a new appreciation for a previously uncatalogued female sensibility, as well as possibilities for a new understanding between the genders.”


But almost immediately, the book came under fire. Unsurprisingly, her claims were dismissed by antifeminists. But they infuriated some feminists, too, who accused her of essentialism: Why celebrate gender differences that might simply be artifacts of patriarchy?

The most significant criticisms of “In a Different Voice,” however, went beyond ideology to ask fundamental questions about the validity of her research and assumptions. In short, the researchers who followed her found little evidence that differences in moral reasoning had anything to do with gender. And, upon scrutiny, Gilligan’s qualitative, interview-based research had nowhere near the rigor necessary to support her claims.

For example, Janet Hyde, a professor of psychology and women’s studies at the University of Wisconsin Madison, conducted a meta-analysis in 2000 of 113 studies measuring gender differences in moral orientation. More than 70 percent of the studies demonstrated no significant gender differences at all, she found, and those that did showed only very small ones. Two other meta-analyses found that gender explains less than 1 percent of differences in moral reasoning. “In the cold light of day several decades later,” Hyde says now, “the data don’t bear out [Gilligan’s] assertions.”

There’s also no evidence that Kohlberg’s work portrayed women as less developed in terms of moral reasoning, as Gilligan claimed. In the mid-1980s, University of British Columbia developmental psychologist Lawrence Walker conducted a literature review examining gender in 80 studies using Kohlberg’s moral-development scale; 86 percent showed no significant differences between the genders; of the remainder, females scored higher in 6 percent of samples and males in 9 percent. In every case where researchers controlled for occupation or education, the differences disappeared.

Again and again, Gilligan’s findings couldn’t be replicated. As Christina Hoff Sommers, a conservative scholar who wrote a brutal takedown of Gilligan work in The Atlantic in 2000, put it recently, “She gave the appearance of having done careful analytic empirical studies, but in fact much of her work was speculative and ideological.” Another critic, Debra Nails, now a philosopher at Michigan State University, criticized Gilligan for sloppy reporting (neglecting to use ellipses in quotations, tidying the arc of at least one subject’s account) in a 1983 paper in Social Research. “She’s been defended as showing higher truths and revealing a higher picture, but I do not believe that can be done with shoddy data and research,” Nails told me. “She didn’t answer her critics. She dismissed them, and you can do that very easily from Harvard.”


During a phone conversation from her home in the Berkshires on a recent afternoon, indeed, Gilligan seems untroubled by these critiques. She has said in the past that she never meant to make statistical claims, but interpretive ones, and when I mention that she interrupts, “How could I possibly?...If I were going to make statements about women, you can imagine the sample you would need. I know that!” The gender issue is a red herring, anyway, she says; the work was really more about recognizing a “voice” of care and empathy.

“I have nothing against quantitative research,” she says. “If your question is ‘How often?’ or ‘How many?’ you need to do a statistical study. But those were not my questions.” She speaks collegially, even warmly, of her critics, and says their work is valuable in continuing the conversation. (There’s one exception to this magnanimity: She calls Sommers’s Atlantic attack, which hinged in part on the extent to which her research had been peer reviewd, “libelous,” and suggests that its publication before the 2000 presidential election was “part of an effort to discourage women from listening to their own voices.”)

Gilligan is 75 today, and still teaching at NYU. Her work has become increasingly literary: In 2008, she published a novel, and she’s written a play and an opera. Although she still loves “In a Different Voice,” she says, she can’t read it anymore; it’s just too far in the past. But people still approach her to share its effect on them. “I think that was very profound for many many people, and if people associate me with that, that’s fine with me,” she says. “I’ve done a lot of work since then, and that’s where my mind is now.”

Indeed, Gilligan is still publicly hailed as a guru of gender and culture. Her later research into the particular fragility of girls is often credited with influencing passage of the 1994 Gender Equity in Education Act. In 1996, Time magazine named her one of America’s 25 most influential people, praising her for proving that “a single book could change the rules of psychology, change the assumptions of medical research, change the conversation among parents and teachers and developmental professionals about the distinctions between men and women, girls and boys.”

Whatever has befallen “In a Different Voice” since its publication, then, its legacy—a wave of new research, a renewed openness within feminism to sex differences, and the notion that abstract detachment isn’t the apex of moral maturity—has marked the world for good. Gilligan’s book may have turned out to be more a call to arms than a work of science, but the research she inspired among her peers has been valuable nevertheless.

Thirty years after her book’s publication, even many of Gilligan’s early critics now respect what it accomplished. “She was a major intellectual contributor at the time,” Hyde said. “She’s like Freud. Today his ideas have less credibility, and we don’t use them so much in scientific psychology. In 1982, it was a revolutionary step forward.”

Ruth Graham is a writer in New Hampshire.